One Possible Reason Alcohol is Addicting

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A new study published in the January 11, 2012 edition of Science Translational Medicine has found that consuming alcohol leads to pleasure and reward producing endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are proteins produced naturally in the brain that produce the safe wellbeing effect as opiates.

Researchers at the Ernest and Julio Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California who conducted the study noted that this is the first time that endorphin release which was noted in the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex, has been observed in humans. Previously observed in animals, but only now in humans, researchers point out that this study provides direct evidence of how alcohol works in the body to make people feel good. Further, discovery of the precise locations of the brain these endorphins are released may make future treatment of alcohol dependence more treatable by allowing for the development of more effective treatment modalities.

13 persons who are considered heavy drinkers were studied in this research project along with 12 persons who were part of a control group were not heavy drinkers. PET scans were used to observe immediate effects of alcohol on subjects’ brains. In all 25 subjects endorphins were released when alcohol was consumed. Also it was found in all 25 subjects that the more endorphins released in the nucleus accumbens the greater the reported feeling of pleasure. However, the greater number of endorphins released in the orbitofrontal cortex, the greater the feeling of reported intoxication in the heavy drinkers only. The control group reported no such increase in feeling.

These results are significant because they suggest the brains of heavy drinkers or persons with alcohol problems are actually altered in a way that makes them more likely to find consuming alcohol more pleasant and offer a greater feeling of reward. This may be a significant clue in determining why drinking problems develop in some people to begin with. If a person feels a greater feeling of pleasure and reward the more alcohol they drink, it seems likely they will consume more alcohol.

This study funded by the Department of Defense and by State of California Funds for Research on Drug and Alcohol Abuse offers new hope in development of new drugs that may work better to treat people with alcohol and drug dependence. By better understanding how endorphins can control drinking researchers have a greater chance of creating successful treatment therapies.

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